The Amusing, Perplexing and Oh-So-English Pantomime


Felixstowe Spa Pavilion, 2015 pantomime

Felixstowe Spa Pavilion, 2015 pantomime

The beloved Christmas pantomime – aka panto – can be described as a comic play, often based on a fairy tale, designed to entertain the whole family.

This sounds rather pleasant and benign, but when Clive first told me about pantos, he went on to say they included such aspects as:

– the lead is often a very buxom female, played by a man

– the male lead, often a young boy,  is played by a woman

– the show is for the kids; the script for the adults; everything is riddled with wordplay and often-sexual innuendoes

– there’s often dancing and a lot of slapstick comedy

– there’s a lot of audience participation and interaction: ‘Oh no, he’s not!’ ‘Oh yes, he is!’ ‘Look out! He’s behind you!’

– during the performance, the actors throw sweets and/or water on the audience

– many well-known actors and actresses have performed in Christmas pantomimes; they say they love them because they’re so much fun

Having never heard of this 16th-century tradition, I thought pantos sounded amusing, perplexing, and quite English, especially related to wordplay and innuendoes and the ability to enjoy simple silliness and humour.

My first panto

Four years ago, during our first Christmas season in the UK, Clive took my son and me to a panto – our first – at the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion. There we saw ‘Aladdin’ along with hundreds of euphoric children and their parents.

Clive had prepared us well for the event. My memories include:

– the lead man dressed up as an absurdly-buxom woman, breasts flopping and heaving throughout the performance

– many mistaken identities

– much slapstick, with broomsticks, buckets and the like

– great amounts of water squirted and sprayed and thrown on the audience – buckets of it, in fact, aimed at the first few rows, causing children to scream with delight

– children – and their parents, I must add – loudly booing the villain when he appeared on stage and shouting out, ‘He’s behind you!’

– and of course, when the lead replied, ‘Oh no he’s not’ everyone shrieking back as one, ‘Oh yes he is!’

And on. And on. And on. At the end my son said, rather firmly,  ‘That was a once in a lifetime experience.’

A French poet’s view of the panto

Charles Baudelaire, the great Romantic poet, wrote about a pantomime he saw in 1842. The italics are mine.

‘I shall long remember the first English pantomime that I ever saw … at the Théatre des Variétés. Few Frenchmen appeared to relish this type of entertainment … the more indulgent among the audience said the performers were vulgar and second-rate. But that was not the point. The important thing about the performers is that they were English.

‘ … the special talent of those English actors for hyperbole gave a curiously gripping reality to this monstrous display of the farcical … it was all gone through without the faintest indication of ill-humour. They leaped and ran through the whole of the fantastic performance.’

from ‘On the Essence of Laughter’ (translation by Peter Quennell)

So what is one to make of this renowned Christmas tradition?

One side of me says (only to myself, at least until I publish this post): It’s so juvenile and crude, really – all the cross-dressing and bawdy jokes and how many references to ‘passing wind’ are we supposed to find funny? Men prancing around as women just don’t do it for me. The joke quickly gets tiresome, and who wants to see ‘stars’ (eg ‘the Hoff’, Lord help us all, or Priscilla Presley, who has returned multiple times) well past their use-by date dressing up as the opposite sex? Really? And please don’t make me sit near the front.

My other side admonishes: Don’t be such a grouch! It’s English humour, it’s entertaining and it’s all good fun. It’s the Christmas spirit! So what if the jokes are lame? It’s harmless and everyone enjoys it. Don’t be so critical! You know you smiled and even laughed at ‘Aladdin’ and when the lead-male-buxom-woman said the villain was not behind him, you called out with best of them, ‘Oh yes he is!’

Dick Whittington (and his cat)

We’ve opted for ‘it’s all good fun’ – at least once every four years – and, motivated by a friend in the cast of Felixstowe Musical Theatre, performing in the lovely nearby town of Woodbridge, booked tickets for the last weekend of November to ‘Dick Whittington and His Cat’.

According to the BBC, Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor of London from 1398-1419, known for his stellar moral character. After 1600, popular fictional stories about him appeared, in which the lead character, unlike the real one, was a poor man with an expert-mouser cat who helped him earn his fortune in London.

Apparently the panto cast includes, among others: Franky Banky, Zappo the Wonder Horse (Top Half), Zappo the Wonder Horse (bottom half), Rats 1-30, Snow White, and Sylvania Fulbright (the dame).

In due course I shall report back, because one way or another it’s bound to be an experience.

Felixstowe Musical Theatre, 2015 pantomime

Felixstowe Musical Theatre, 2015 pantomime

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe, looking ahead to Paris in December.

2 Responses

  1. I sense that you are not entirely looking forward to it Carolyn. Panto is probably an acquired taste that I have never really acquired – well not since I was seven !

  2. Definitely an acquired taste, John and I’m not sure I have it either 🙂

    We plan to enjoy the day in Woodbridge, applaud our friend and I guess soak up the delight of all those screaming seven year-olds. Eek!

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